JULY 1, 1979
It was a breezy day for July on the South Pacific Coast. The wind was rippling the surface of the ocean, making a flurry of tiny waves riding the backs of the great big ones. The sun gilded the tips, as if a fine, playful net of white/gold sparkles had been cast over the deep blue water.
It was hell on the eyes.
Hutch squinted against the glare and paid attention to the narrow road. It was really a hassle to drive all the way out every weekend, but the doctors had decided that Starsky had a better chance of recovery on the beach, away from the city pollution. A man with a scarred lung, a partial stomach, one kidney and a shortened intestinal tract needed all the help he could get, from nature as well as the medical profession. All the beach property close to the city had been way out of reach, even to rent. It took an hour and a half to drive to the small cottage Huggy had somehow procured.
The road was graced with beautiful scenery, but Hutch hated it anyway. For one thing, it scared him. The doctors had said that if Starsky had been unable to get down during the shooting, it was just as well he had been standing up all the way. The shots coming from the car had entered at a low enough angle to miss the really vital organs. They saw no immediate problems cropping up. Still, it was at least an hour to the nearest hospital from the cottage; too goddamned far for Hutch's taste.
For another... "Don't be ridiculous," Starsky had said. "Three hours driving every day? You'll fall asleep on the job or on the way and get yourself killed. I've got a nurse and I'll be fine."
Hutch hated the distance.
Today, though, there was a saving artistic grace. For once, The Earl had restrained his inclinations and had listened to Hutch: "I don't care how appropriate it sounds, Merl, no zebra stripes, period. Just put it back the way it was. Whatever it takes, just the way it was."
Starsky, who thought his precious toy was somewhere collecting rust, would be surprised. Hutch put more pressure on the gas pedal of the Torino, painted anew and waxed to a sheen.
The cottage was wide open, as usual. Hutch found Starsky's day nurse in the kitchen, drinking coffee and reading a magazine. A professional therapist had also been too scarce and too expensive.
"Hello, Sergeant," Willis said. He was a pale young man, short and stocky. "Nice day."
Hutch returned the greeting as he peeked into the bedroom. "Where is he?"
"On the pier. Fishing."
Hutch went to the patio doors. They opened on to a rectangular sundeck, and steps led down to the beach. A little behind the stretch of sand was the pier, weathered wood planks on cement supports, just adequate for two small boats. Starsky was sitting in a chair at the end of it, with a small table in front of him. The fishing pole was secured between some planks. His head was down, probably reading something or dozing. "Is he all right?"
Willis turned around to look at his charge. "Fine." He was a man of few words.
Not dozing, Hutch thought when Starsky's arm moved. "Should he be out in the sun?"
"Do him good."
Hutch saw the arm move again, reaching for something on the table. "How's the therapy going?"
Both men watched Starsky. "You usually leave him alone like that?"
Willis tapped the table top. "Got the beeper right here."
Before he consciously knew what he was doing, Hutch was out the door, across the patio and at the steps. "Call an ambulance!" he shouted, taking the steps three-four at a time. "Starsky," he called out, hoping he was wrong and his friend would turn around. No reaction.
The sand slowed him down. Didn't hear me, the wind, he tried to explain to himself, but fear was stronger than any efforts to subdue it.
"Starsky!" he shouted again, bounding onto the pier. He slid to a stop and dropped to his knees next to his partner. Starsky's head was still down. He cupped the face gently to turn it. It was pale, wet with perspiration, the eyes open but glazed. "What's wrong? Starsky!"
"Ca-- can't--" Starsky tried and made a whimpering sound.
The table and Starsky's arm reaching across it were what was keeping the man upright. Hutch braced him, shoved the table away, sending it crashing onto its side, and took Starsky's weight, easing him off the chair into his arms. "It's all right, I got you. Can you talk? Can you tell me what's wrong?"
A raspy sound was all that came out of Starsky's mouth. His right hand moved, an agitated motion, groped to get a hold of Hutch, slid off.
"Hush. It's all right if you can't talk. Don't be scared. I got you." Starsky was still trying to get his fingers to hold onto Hutch. "Easy, easy. I'm right here. He noticed that the left side of the body was deathly inert.
Oh, God, no more. Please, no more. "I'm going to lay you down now. Stay still." Carefully, he eased his partner down on the planks.
"Hutc--" Starsky began, couldn't finish. He wouldn't be still. The hand that could move clawed at Hutch.
"Please don't move, Starsky, please." He grasped the restless hand, squeezed tight. "You feel that? I'm not going to let go." He leaned close to the face, saw panic in the pain-darkened eyes. He wished he could gather him back into his arms, but didn't dare. "I'm going to get you to the hospital. You just hold on. Close your eyes. Try to relax." Starsky rolled his head from side to side. Hutch cradled it in his palm. "Sssh, don't tire yourself." Starsky leaned into his hand and stilled. "That's right. Just hang in there, okay, partner?"
When he noticed there were too many hands on Starsky, he realized Willis was there. "What's wrong with him?" he asked, desperate for assurance from some source.
Willis checked the pulse and the pupils, then brought out a stethoscope. "I don't know. His breathing -- something's interfering. Fluid in the lungs? Sssh..." He listened for a while. "Arrhythmia, definitely."
"What's that mean?"
"Irregular heartbeat. Interrupted, actually."
Not again. Please, not again. "Do something!"
"I can't. I'm not a doctor, just an LPN. The ambulance is on the way."
I knew it, Hutch thought. So far away. I knew something was bound to happen. He didn't know how he spoke or made sense, but the words were coming out, clear and precise. "Go to the car. Pick up the radio. Red button. Second left. Metro, Priority One, Distress. Repeat it until someone answers. Ask for a patch to Captain Dobey. Dobey. Tell him what happened. Tell him I want a police helicopter, with paramedics. Now!" Willis left at a run.
"It's going to be okay, Starsk, hang in there." He leaned over his partner, shielding him from the sun, feeling helpless. "I'll get you out of here. Soon, I promise. You hear me, don't you?"
Starsky's eyes opened. They were clear and calm now, and the lack of fear in them scared Hutch more than anything. The hand in his moved a little. Hutch loosened his hold enough to sense which direction it wanted to move, then brought it up to his face. "This? Is this what you want?"
Fingers groped, found his hair, tugged down weakly.
Thinking he understood, Hutch brought his ear close to Starsky's mouth, despairing at the grating, labored breathing. The fingers tugged again, a feeble directive to turn his head. He did, found his lips against Starsky's, felt the ghost of a kiss, and the fingers slipped out of his hair. He held them securely again, pressed to his cheek, and pulled his head back a little to see his friend's face. A corner of Starsky's mouth lifted in a travesty of a smile, one finger brushed against Hutch's cheek, then his hand went totally limp and he started to close his eyes.
Goodbye, Hutch heard as if spoken.
"No! No, dammit! You're not giving up, you hear me? Open your eyes, look at me. Look at me, damn you! We don't accept it. Anytime. Anywhere. Ever! Isn't that what you said? Goddamn you, Starsky, were you lying to me?"
Starsky looked at him again. "Hutch..." he managed.
"That's right, I'm here. Stay with me. Just stay with me."
"Yes, you can! You are breathing. Keep it up, even if it hurts, keep it up.
Fear reclaimed Starsky's features as he struggled. "Can't--!"
"Don't be scared. If you have to stop, I'll breathe for you. We can hang on long enough. But you keep on trying, don't quit. Please, Starsky, for me. Stay with me, stay, for me."
Starsky closed his eyes again, but he was doing his best to obey the entreaties. Gurgling sounds accompanied his efforts, but some amount of air was going in and out. Hutch counted each breath, his own respiration unconsciously falling into the same rhythm. "Come on. One more. Again. Another one. You can do it, come on. Deeper, can you manage deeper? That's good. Again."
Starsky convulsed at one point, unable to exhale. Hutch lifted him up into his arms before he could think he might be doing something wrong, then realized he had done the right thing after all when something dislodged from Starsky's throat and his breathing eased a bit.
Hutch leaned him sideways. Something slipped out of the side of his mouth.
"Better..." Starsky mumbled.
"Of course it is. Going to be just fine." Hutch watched the lump of coagulated blood, dark and viscid, slide down his arm onto the wood, then noticed Starsky was drifting off again, exhausted. "Back to work, slouch. Come on. Breathe. Deeper. In. Out. Again. Again. Again."
He held his partner and talked without pause until the chopper drowned him out. Then other hands were there, other people were talking, pulling Starsky away from him. He stubbornly held onto his partner's hand, and nobody seemed able to break that last hold.
"Maximum concentration of oxygen," a tinny voice from a radio was saying. "Expand those arteries. Tracheotomy indicated?"
"I don't think so," a paramedic answered. "Some obstruction in air passages, not that drastic."
"Just tube him then, and bring him in."
"We have to take him now." Somebody was pulling on Hutch's arm.
He shoved the hand away and stood up as they lifted Starsky on the litter, keeping his hold through a wave of dizziness. Breathing at Starsky's rate with clear air passages had made him lightheaded. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and managed to keep up.
He barely registered the flight, the progression across a rooftop, and the elevator ride. The first thing to really reach his awareness was when Starsky's hand was forcibly removed from his. "You can't go in there," he was told as doors swung shut after his partner. "Go to the waiting room."
He blinked and identified Starsky's doctor. Distantly. "No."
"Get him out of here, take him to my office," the doctor told some orderlies and disappeared through the double doors.
Hands steered him through corridors and into a room. They attempted to seat him, but he shook them off. He found a wall instead, stood against it, leaned his head back. Doors opened and closed, then he heard a familiar voice.
"Sit down, Hutchinson." Dobey. Of course. He shook his head and stayed where he was. "Well, okay. Can I get you anything?" He shook his head again. "All right," Dobey said. The Captain dabbed at the blond's lips with some cloth. As it was pulled away, Hutch saw dark red stains on the pristine white, remembered the blood on the side of Starsky's mouth, didn't wonder about how it had gotten to his, didn't worry if the nurse or the paramedics had been there at the time.
He sensed the captain pacing, then stopping in front of him. A hand closed gently on his arm. "Why don't you come to the chapel with me? It might help."
Why couldn't they leave him alone? He yanked his arm away. "I'm not going anywhere!"
"It's right here in the hospital." The tone was conciliatory.
"No. You go. And you can tell the bastard to find a flood for his kicks. Tell him to leave Starsky alone!"
It brought Hutch to his senses, a little. He looked at Dobey's face and knew that he had deeply offended the devout man. "Captain, I...I--" He couldn't say he was sorry for what he'd said; he only regretted upsetting the kind man.
"All right, son, all right. Don't worry about it. I understand. He does, too."
While he's at it, Hutch thought, could he condescend to understanding that I'd make one lousy Job?
Dobey didn't leave him alone after all. A few times he attempted to make Hutch sit down, but the detective wouldn't budge. He was still there when the doctor came in, followed by Willis. Hutch simply waited, feeling like if he moved he would break into little pieces.
"Blood clots...blockage...arteries...lungs. Luckily... Could've been... Caught in time... Resting easily. Can be discharged...a few days. Some systems... Now that we know he's prone to them...regular anticoagulants...no problem...
"Did you hear that?" Dobey was tugging at his sleeve.
He straightened, shook his bead to clear it, nodded. Rubbed his face. Took a deep breath. Shook his head again, and could hear better. "I didn't notice anything," Willis was saying. "He was fine. Fishing. I saw him reach for something on the table, but his drink was there, too. I don't know how the detective knew something was--"
"Right hand," Hutch said. Everybody looked at him. "He kept reaching with his right hand."
"So?" Willis said.
"He's left-handed, dammit! Didn't you ever notice? The table was right in front. He'd have used his left if he could've."
"Oh." Willis looked genuinely distressed. "I'm sorry."
"We're all sorry," the doctor said. "I assure you, better care will be taken in the future. We'll make sure--"
"No!" Hutch interrupted. "No more. No more! Whatever this guy knows about therapy, teach me. I'll learn. If I can't, send a therapist daily, but I'm taking care of him from now on. Nobody else."
Dobey started to object. "You can't be with him twenty-four hours a day. You have--"
Hutch whirled on him. "Why not? Put me on leave without pay, put me on the inactive list, count me AWOL, fire me. I'll save you the trouble and resign. What the hell do I care?"
Dobey stared at him for a moment, then sighed. "You're on compassionate leave, effective immediately. We'll figure out the rest later. For now, I'm taking you home before you fall on your face."
Hutch insisted on detouring by Starsky's room, then allowed Dobey to drag him out of the hospital. They were in front of Venice Place when he remembered his manners. "Thank you, Captain."
"Oh, get outta here. Couldn't have gotten an honest day's work out of you otherwise anyway. What's the difference? Get some rest and keep me informed."
Hutch headed straight for his bed and dropped into it fully clothed. He felt strangely impersonal about himself, his surroundings. He was on hold in this apartment, like a temporary boarder. Only when they restored his partner to him would he feel halfway home.
JULY 6, 1979
Hutch had brought Starsky straight from the hospital to the beach cottage that afternoon. His partner had been subdued, and he had followed suit, content for the moment with Starsky's presence close by. Dinner was a quiet affair, which was just as well, the blond thought. In a talkative mood, Starsky would have griped endlessly about the bland foods he had to eat for the next few days.
"Is that all you want?" Hutch asked when Starsky pushed his plate away and carefully leaned back. His partner nodded glumly. Hutch took the plates into the kitchen. Having lost some of his stomach, Starsky had to eat less, but more frequently. He had to slowly stretch what remained until it was again adequate for the needs of a young, active body - well, active one day, it was hoped.
Hutch came back with some more water. Liquids had been deemed the best, not taxing but with volume to expand the stomach walls. Starsky made a face, but drank it anyway. "Back to square one," he said tonelessly, as he put the empty glass down.
"No, Starsky, not really. You just lost some days, that's all. They said you're healing fine, much better than they expected." In fact, the blood clots had been partially due to a too-fast-healing system.
"Why doesn't it feel that way?"
"I hope so. Right now, I feel like going down to the beach, lying down and never getting up again."
Hutch studied him for a minute. A certain amount of depression was to be expected, especially after a setback. "Okay. Let's see, we'll need sleeping bags. An umbrella in case it rains. I'll bring the cooler down. It'll do for now. Oh, yeah, toilet paper. Anything else we need, I'll come back for it later. Let's go."
Starsky looked at him strangely. "What?"
"You want to live on the beach, we'll live on the beach. You don't have to get up, either, if you don't want to - I don't mind catering. Of course, I don't know what you're going to do about the minor detail of a bathroom, but I suppose we can move upwind if it gets too bad."
"You're a nut, you know that?"
Hutch pretended to be insulted. "Hey, it was your idea."
"I didn't expect it to fly!"
"We can't tell until we try it, right? I'm game, let's go."
"Aw, shut up and get me those tennis balls," Starsky grumbled.
Hutch kept a straight face and did what was asked. Starsky took one in each hand and started squeezing them rhythmically. After a while, he pushed his chair back a little, sat up, stretched his arms straight, chest muscles now contracting with each squeeze. "We can't keep this up for too long, you know."
"You, stayin' here."
"How long can Dobey keep you on compassionate leave before the Chief comes down on him? Another week, max."
"So I'll go on leave without pay. Or inactive."
Starsky lifted his arms over his head and continued the exercise. "I'm on partial pay already. No bank is likely to give us a loan. I mean, I'm what they call 'a bad risk,' right? What are we gonna do for money? Talkin' of which, I saw the groceries. I just have to eat, Hutch, I don't have to eat like Rockefeller. Don't like most of that junk anyway."
"He who wields the spatula has the last word. You'll have some say-so about it when you can get your ass into the kitchen. Not too much say-so, mind you. I'm not eating your concoctions until I vote on what goes in them."
"Don't worry about money. We'll manage."
"By what miracle?" Starsky put his arms down, forgetting the exercise until Hutch motioned at him to go on. "I don't wanna give up my apartment, or have to look for another one. Three houses, a therapist, the equipment we're rentin', daily expenses, utilities--why are you grinnin' at me? This is serious!"
Hutch hadn't been paying as much attention to what Starsky was saying as to how he was saying it. His partner had already lumped the finances and the difficulties under an all-inclusive joint ownership, and something about his attitude over 'granteds' was immensely appealing to the blond. He brought his wandering mind back to the issue. "There's the savings."
"Can't be much left. I know my insurance didn't cover private rooms. I know who covered those. And my car."
"There's enough. There'll be more."
"Don't worry about it."
Starsky stopped the exercise, and this time wouldn't obey Hutch's motion to continue. "Your folks?" he asked, frowning. Hutch couldn't hedge anymore. He nodded. Starsky stared at him, then turned away and hurled the balls toward a wall. "Damn, Hutch!"
Hutch plucked one rebounding ball out of the air, let the other roll out of the room. "What's the big deal? They're my parents and they're loaded."
"Don't give me that! You're 36 years old. When was the last time you went to them with your hand out?"
"Twenty years ago!" Hutch snapped. The subject was a sensitive one. "Didn't stop them from piling it on me, did it? For every goddamned thing I didn't need. Clothes suitable for a Hutchinson, schools right for a Hutchinson. Cars, trips, clubs, you name it. They even kept Van in furs as long as I was a good boy on the way to becoming a proper heir. They can damn well use it for something that matters to me for a change!"
Silence followed his outburst. Starsky studied his hands, sighed, then, asked softly: "Was it bad, askin' them?"
"Don't make a big deal out of this. I asked and they said yes. You wouldn't understand them, Starsk." And thank God for that, he thought. "It wasn't as if I wanted something important; I just wanted money and they probably loved it. They enjoy handing out money; it's other things they have problems with."
Starsky shook his head, still looking down at his hands. "That wasn't what I asked."
"I know." He left it at that and Starsky seemed to understand he wasn't going to say anymore about it.
The dark head came up after a while. Starsky took a deep breath, and let it out. "It's a loan."
"Of course it is."
"We'll pay it back, every penny."
"Yes, we will."
Silence fell for a while. Hutch rose. "Guess I'll do the dishes."
"First, could you set up the bicycle and the rower for me?"
"Why don't you rest for one night?"
"I'll take it real easy, but I'm sick of sittin' on my ass. I gotta get back to work."
As Hutch was pulling the cumbersome equipment to the middle of the bedroom, he realized that he had, inadvertently, given Starsky another purpose, and that he'd probably never again hear his partner talk about playing dead on the beach.
AUGUST 10, 1979
"Hey, you falling asleep on me again?" Hutch asked, unwrapping the towels from around Starsky's legs.
Spread like a starfish on his belly, his partner moved without opening his eyes. It wasn't a stretch, but the sleepy, boneless undulation of a sleek, dark cat, a purr-like rumble deep in his chest completing the image.
Definitely mellowed out, Hutch thought. Wish I could leave him be. "You ready?"
Hutch took that as consent and began the massage. He'd learned enough so that now the therapist was only showing up to change the routines and supervise the new ones for a few days.
Hutch had been impatient to take over from the man. He had sat there, watching Starsky contort and flinch with pain under a stranger's hands, hearing his breath catch at each manipulation, and had been sure he could do so much better. Of course, his first attempts had shattered all illusions. It felt worse knowing he was the one causing the pain. When he had seen, alongside all the other signs of discomfort, tears spilling out from under Starsky's tightly squeezed eyelids, he had drawn back, convinced that he couldn't go on, ever. Starsky had given him one of his setting-the-muddled-blond-straight lectures. No deposit, no return; no pain, no gain. It wasn't that he hadn't hurt enough to cry before, just that with Hutch he had been able to let go finally, and it was actually easier that way.
It was getting better lately, much to Hutch's relief. Right then, Starsky seemed to be enjoying himself, but then the real test would be when Hutch finished the limbs and started on the torso, still wrapped in towels at the moment.
"Best idea you've ever had," Starsky mumbled, his voice muffled by the mat.
He was referring to the towels. Remembering his wrestling days, Hutch had suggested throwing thick towels into the dryer and warming the muscles with them prior to the massage. "Really? Makes a difference?"
"Mmmmm...terrific." He was practically drawling. "You ain't gonna make me get up 'n exercise afterwards, are you?"
"Of course I am. Let's not forget the whole purpose of this."
"Right. Let's not forget that," Starsky said after a beat. He didn't sound drowsy anymore and there was something like irritation in his voice.
"Come on, Starsk, I know it's getting to be a hassle, but--"
"All right, all right. I got the point." Hutch pulled the towels loose from Starsky's upper body and started on the shoulders. "You're tensing up. Relax." With spread fingers he followed the prominent curve of the wide muscles that narrowed toward the small of the back, over and over, slowly increasing pressure. "What's the matter? Relax, will you." Sweat sprung out in beads under his hands and the pale, stretched skin around the bullet and scalpel scars reddened. Still hurts like hell, doesn't it?
"Okay, here goes," he warned before he really dug his fingers into the muscles. Reflexively, Starsky's head came up from the mat. Hutch held the pressure steady until his partner got used to the feel, his breathing regulated and he put his head down again. Then he continued. After he was through with the necessary manipulations, his hands gentled again, rubbing the back in long strokes, keeping the muscles warm and trying, in some small measure, to make up for the hurt.
"Enough." It was a definite order.
Hutch pulled back, a little surprised. There was an undercurrent he didn't understand. "Roll over."
"Take a break, okay?"
"Starsky, the idea is to warm and stretch all the muscles quickly. I know it's not pleasant, but it has to be done. Roll over."
"I wanna rest."
"This isn't the time to do it. Are you turning or am I doing it for you?"
"Leave me alone!"
"You're acting like a child." Hutch reached to turn Starsky over and encountered resistance. "What's the matter?"
"Oh, what the hell," Starsky grumbled and turned, the action revealing the reason for his reluctance.
Well, he's getting better, Hutch thought. He almost made a joke to let Starsky know there was nothing to be embarrassed about, but there was something unnerving about the expression in his partner's eyes which were looking straight at him. Hutch started massaging the chest as if aware of nothing out of the ordinary.
But, of course, he was. He could keep his eyes from the evidence of Starsky's arousal, but not his mind. Every time I do this I cause him pain. Would it be so wrong to give a little pleasure? It can be so simple, just an extension of the massage.
He might have carried on from thought to action, and his hands almost strayed to the waistband of the briefs a couple of times, but he was uncomfortably aware of his own reactions just to the thought, knew he couldn't keep it simple, and controlled himself.
They were cooped up in a tiny house, committed to a cause. It was no time for complications. Miraculously, it hadn't affected their friendship in the slightest over the years, but they'd always had other distractions, their personal space to retreat into. In such close quarters, with Starsky constantly under his eye and hands, he didn't dare cross the line or there'd be no restraining factor, no way to gain distance from it...
...no place for Starsky to run.
He continued the massage as usual -- no more, no less. Starsky turned his face to one side, away from him, and closed his eyes.
"Uh...you want a break now?" Hutch suggested after he was through. "I can go swim for a while."
"No," Starsky answered gruffly. "Let's get on with it."